Cutting edge: the evolution of capability advantage in Australian strategic policy discourse 1968-2009




Hardy, John

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Capability edge is one of the most expensive ideas that Australian politicians have ever had. The notion of using technology to offset demographic and economic limitations on Australia’s military emerged in the early 1970s alongside the concept of defence self reliance. It began as a means to bolster Australia’s credibility as a regional security partner as British security commitments to Southeast Asia waned. By the twenty-first century it became a recurring policy concept and featured in public statements and diplomatic signals at the highest levels of government. Although the need for an ‘edge’ in military capability was articulated consistently in policy and political statements, the meaning of the concept changed over time. This evolution provides insight into key strategic policy decisions and offer lessons for scholars, policymakers and analysts alike, but has not been directly examined. This thesis traces transformations of the concept of an edge from its emergence in the 1970s through to the twenty-first century. It conducts a comparative analysis of publicly released policy documents and archival records of speeches made by Prime Ministers and Ministers for Defence in order to identify the ways in which the concept evolved and how transformations were represented in political statements. It finds that three conceptual links were crucial in the evolution of the edge. The first was the link between credibility and technological advantage which emerged in the early 1970s and cemented the notion 8 that technology mitigated Australia’s strategic deficiencies. The second was the gradual entrenchment of the principle that Australia required a degree of relative advantage, which created a narrative of confidence that was based on the condition of superiority. The third was the explicit link between technology and quality which occurred in the late 1990s and conceptually mapped the concept of advantage, which had changed significantly from its origins, back to credibility. These processes have created a conceptual trap in which expectations of Australia’s defence policy risk becoming untenable but have been a fundamental tenet of the dominant defence narrative for so long that it will be a serious challenge to change the discourse to accommodate new realities. The evolution of the edge is a cautionary tale to the extent that there remains a significant risk of incurring enormous expenses in pursuit of an objective which gained prominence in a different policy context. As regional militaries modernise, they will in combination, if not individually in some cases, eclipse Australia’s capacity to retain an edge. This will challenge a political idea which has become a principal element of defence force structure planning, a core measure of the standard of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and a key expectation of the Australian public. Understanding the evolution of the edge from its inception to 2009 is crucial to making an informed decision about the next evolution of capability edge.



capability edge, evolution of the edge, technological advantage




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